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Natural-disaster recovery expert hopeful about New Orleans plan

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor


Rob Olshansky
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Rob Olshansky, a professor and associate head of urban and regional planning, says the Unified New Orleans Plan "has taken a little longer than I would have liked and expected, but they’ve come up with something that is perfectly designed to accomplish what is necessary."

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As an urban planning researcher who studies how cities rebuild following natural disasters, Rob Olshansky has kept his scholar’s eye keenly focused on redevelopment plots and subplots surfacing this past year in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Until recently, however, the actual planning process was all but stalled, Olshansky said, as various players jockeyed for position, residents endured “endless posturing by nationally known designers and design firms about the form that the new New Orleans should take” and residents were “bombarded by charettes, in which all their problems could purportedly be solved in one week.”

That all changed dramatically last month with what Olshansky called “a stunning sequence of events” leading to the announcement of the Unified New Orleans Plan.

“Suddenly, there’s this great opportunity … it’s a critical time for New Orleans,” said Olshansky, a professor and associate head of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It has taken a little longer than I would have liked and expected, but they’ve come up with something that is perfectly designed to accomplish what is necessary.

“Through a complex arrangement of public and private institutions in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, all the key players – major, council, planning commission, state – agreed to participate jointly in a planning effort, in order to prioritize use of federal funds as well as to attract additional investment in the reconstruction,” Olshansky said.

Funded largely through a $3.5 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, the plan calls for assigning paid consultants to work closely with residents in each neighborhood, within a framework provided by a citywide consultant.

The pool of neighborhood consultants was selected through a national “request for qualifications” process, overseen by a panel of planning experts. Residents also had a say in determining which consultant best matched their needs.

Another aspect of the plan’s “perfect design,” Olshansky said, is that it re-empowers the city’s planning commission – “kept out of the loop for months” – as the official body charged with reviewing and approving city plans.

The whole process is to be supervised by a Community Support Organization consisting of representatives of the mayor’s office, city council, planning commission and state government, as well as five neighborhood groups.

Olshansky said the plan’s overall structure, as well as several distinguishing features, position it well for success.

“First, it requires all parties to bury their egos – or at least pretend to.

“Second, it provides funding for neighborhood planning, and gives neighborhoods a choice of their consultant. It also provides for neighborhoods to build on the efforts many had completed to date, either through voluntary efforts, university assistance, or the city council-funded process already begun.

“Third, it ties together the neighborhood efforts by means of a citywide framework.

“Fourth it brings the planning commission back in as an important player in citywide planning, as required under the city charter.”

A particularly hopeful sign, he said, is an infusion of local expertise and talent.

“Planners and planning faculty in New Orleans have been complaining about the superficial nature of the process so far,” Olshansky said. “Now, suddenly, in an amazing turn of events, they find themselves as the leaders of the Unified Plan.” The citywide planning team includes Jane Brooks from the University of New Orleans and Steve Villavaso, a UNO adjunct professor and president of the Louisiana chapter of the American Planning Association. Also a key player, Olshansky said, is Henry Consulting, a minority-owned management firm “with deep roots in New Orleans.”

“This team is perfectly designed for the difficult job ahead,” the U. of I. professor said. Nonetheless, he concedes that the actual process is likely to be “ugly and complicated,” and not without hang-ups.

“Critical questions remain,” he said. Among them:

“How far will the $3.5 million go? How effectively will the planning team be able to integrate displaced residents into the process? How exactly, will all the neighborhood aspirations be moderated by citywide and budgetary realities? How will this mesh with the state’s ‘Road Home’ money, soon available to homeowners?”

And the question everyone wants answered: “How long will this really take?

Before anyone can arrive close to that answer, Olshansky said, all parties at the planning table must first be prepared to do even more hard work – “to be vigilant at nurturing and strengthening … making sure some of the key elements of the plan are in place: transparency, openness in participation, and communication.” And, he added, “the Community Support Organization – which doesn’t appear to exist yet – will be critical in its policy role.”

The real route home to a new New Orleans is sure to be dotted with obstacles, Olshansky said. “But this is exactly the road I would have designed, as well as the vehicle I would have picked to negotiate it.”